Before we go any further with this I feel obligated to warn you not to expect very much this time around. In fact, this month’s offering may very well turn out to be both short and only vaguely on-target. See, I’ve had my hands full recently with other endeavors and I’ve found that I’ve had very little time to watch or, more importantly, write about movies. Now before folks start to picket Shovel Plaza and demand some good old fashioned kung fu movie related content I have cobbled together a little something to toss your way. Hopefully this potpourri will tide you over until I can put together a heartier cinema selection.
That means next month, in case you’re keeping score.
My first shot at content this month is some randomness related to that big old box office monolith named Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Now, I did warn you that I’m a little short on material this month but I swear this really isn’t a cop out. Hopefully you’ll agree.
First off, while watching Phantom Menace I was repeatedly reminded of an old rumor that has plagued Hong Kong film fans for nearly two years. This is the way it goes in its most basic form: a few years back during early pre-production on the first of the prequels, George Lucas, in one way or another, contacted Sammo Hung Kam-Bo in regards to Sammo taking the fight choreographer’s job on Episode I. I have never received confirmation that this actually happened, but it wouldn’t in any way surprise me if it were true as Lucas is a real student of cinema and Sammo is generally regarded as one of the greatest action directors the world has ever produced. That said, the initial contact is apparently all that ever happened. As is obvious now, nothing ever came of it. That didn’t stop the rumor from resurfacing on Usenet every two months or so, mutating each time until finally it was not Sammo at all, but Tsui Hark and he was going to DIRECT Episodes II and III (note: how fucking cool would that be). The point of this is that I was struck by how much Lucas (and Darth Maul/Ray Park, the actual choreographer) tried to pull off Hong Kong style wire fu. I mean this was a case where Lucas would have been better served by actually going to the source instead of simply co-opting styles and incorporating it into his bag of tricks (see: Kurosawa, Akira and Hidden Fortress). In other words, if the rumor had actually had some real merit and Sammo had been pegged to do the fights this would’ve been a real eye-opener instead of merely a pretty good knockoff (at least in regards to the fights).
Another more on-topic note about TPM is yet another Lucasian swipe from Asian cinema. It’s not nearly as blatant or as far-reaching an example as his "borrowing" of the structure of Hidden Fortress as a template for the original Star Wars (now known as Episode IV: A New Hope for you nit-pickers out there) but it’s still pretty interesting. Apparently Lucas screened a copy of the Tsui Hark produced remake of King Hu’s classic Dragon Gate Inn and decided that the look and feel of that film’s finale would make a mighty fine blueprint for the fight between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn on Tatooine. Watch Dragon Inn (1992) and then go see Phantom Menace for the fifth time and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s pretty blatant.
Actually, now that I mention it Dragon Inn is a movie that needs to be seen by folks regardless of its connection to Star Wars (same goes for Hidden Fortress, but that’s a whole topic by itself). It features a phenomenal cast (Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia and Maggie Cheung are the headliners), a strong (if slightly underdeveloped) story, wonderful cinematography and some phenomenal fights. A very interesting film. Not the equal of King Hu’s work (and really, what is?), but still very good.
This next one floated into my lap apparently at random… Donnie Yen’s got a new movie, City of Darkness (or Dark City, I’m really not sure what the official translation is yet). All I know about it so far is that it features three of my favorite screen fighters; Donnie, Billy Chow Bei-Lai and Ngai Sing (who is known in these parts as Jet Li’s best ever dance partner. See the blistering finale of Bodyguard from Beijing for proof of that statement). I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy but I’ve heard some pretty good things about this Taiwanese production so expect to see a review sometime in the near future.
Since I mentioned him I guess I’ll wrap this thing up with a little bit of Jet Li news. He’s currently finishing up shooting his new movie, Romeo Must Die, in Vancouver and it’s tentatively slated for a 1st quarter 2000 release. Produced by Silver Pictures (as in Joel) and Warner Bros. this film can be best described as a hip-hop/kung fu retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If that "premise" isn’t deflating enough, Jet’s co-star is some pop singer with no acting experience named Aaliyah and it’s being helmed by a first-time director, former cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Even when you add in an appearance by Delroy Lindo and fights choreographed by Corey Yuen Kwai, nothing about this project inspires much hope in me for a quality film. That’s depressing because at one point I sorely wanted this movie to happen and was actually nervous when the months ticked by without a solid word about it’s production/release schedule. Now, I wish the thing would just go away and die an honorable death. That probably won’t happen.
Hrrm. I think that’s all I can muster right now as my brain hurts and my eyes are closing involuntarily. Hopefully this sloppy chunk of my skull will fit the bill for a while. If not, please feel free to email me and inform me that I suck. I live for that sort of positive reinforcement.
This article first appeared in Shovel Magazine #15, August 1999